For black people in nearly every period of history, literacy and learning have been essential to our freedom. Despite centuries of tactics intended to cement blacks as “inferior” structurally in society, Jim Crow segregation propelled the establishment of black schools that raised the standard of education and contributed to uplifting the black race.
Oklahoma adopted the Territorial School Code in 1897, a law that mandated segregated schools. In 1907 when Oklahoma approved the state’s constitution, this law upheld the practice of segregation; thus, the first law in Oklahoma was that of segregation.
Despite this, Jim Crow segregation gave way to teaching that should be considered activism as black female teachers found themselves in unique predicaments while teaching in segregated schools. These women, who were teaching away from the white gaze, were able to use segregated schools to activate and organize their students to pursue radical economic and societal change.
Two influential black women teacher-activists in Oklahoma were Clara Luper (1923-2011) and Nancy Randolph Davis (1926-2015). These women radically changed the democratic landscape in this state through their courage, resiliency, activism, and teaching.
Though their stories began well before their years pursuing higher education, we should note that these women met and became close friends while attending Langston University (LU). Langston is a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), located in Guthrie, Oklahoma, and a key site for educational empowerment for African Americans since its inception in 1897.
Luper and Davis became K-12 teachers in Spencer, Oklahoma, both teaching at Dunjee Schools–a segregated annex of Choctaw Public School District. Black teachers were often members of the communities in which they taught and were deeply invested in the community life of the families they served.
Beginning in 1957, Luper served as youth council advisor for the Oklahoma City chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Alongside Luper was Nancy Randolph Davis, a home economics teacher at Dunjee and behind the scenes supporter of the youth council.
As a result of these women’s organizing efforts, our country’s first and longest successful sit-in movement began in 1958 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Though, mainstream media did not report the activity taking place as media sources primarily focused on events taking place throughout the Deep South.
Recognizing Oklahoma as a site of radical activism is important, but more imperative is our remembrance of Luper and Davis as teacher-activists who committed their careers engaging students in acts of civil disobedience.
As our state’s education system continues to crumble amid this current era of the New Jim Crow, where structural racism has taken new forms, knowledge surrounding Luper and Davis as teacher activists offer examples of activist teaching and inspiration for contemporary teacher activists.
Black women’s teacher-activism is too often disregarded in the history of teacher-activism, history of teachers, and history of black activism in Civil Rights. On the contrary, black women teachers were integral parts of the movement, leveraging their role as teachers to raise their students’ critical consciousness.
Although some define activism as overt public acts and demonstrations, this type of definition is limiting when considering the scope of activism historically. Black women have promoted group survival among community members–using the school as a site for their efforts.
Luper and Davis recognized that education was one crucial instrument of survival and an influential arena for activism for black people in America. These dynamic women used education as a tool to empower their students to believe they could accomplish anything.
So during this Black History Month, it is my pleasure to spotlight the work of Clara Luper and Nancy Randolph Davis–two women who worked to unravel the pathological impact of segregation stitch by stitch.